Sierra Leone's Special Court: Promises and Pitfalls

(Press Release Issued by International Crisis Group)

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

August 4, 2003

Freetown/Brussels, 4 August 2003: The Special Court for Sierra Leone is in the first stages of attempting to bring to justice those who bear the "greatest responsibility" for war crimes and crimes against humanity during the country's eleven-year civil war. The Court has made important progress - indicting and arresting a number of top commanders as well as indicting the President of neighbouring Liberia, Charles Taylor.

A new briefing paper published today by the International Crisis Group, The Special Court for Sierra Leone: Promises and Pitfalls of a "New Model" says that the relative rapidity with which the court has been moving suggests that it may meet the target it has set itself of completing its work within three years. If it does, it will have been far more expeditious than the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

The Special Court is intended to be cheaper and faster than a UN Tribunal. It is a hybrid UN and national court - held up as a potential "new model" to dispense justice in other gravely troubled countries. Its performance, therefore, has important ramifications for international criminal justice, and especially for the new International Criminal Court (ICC). Its main donor, the United States, wants it to succeed, in part in expectation that success will reduce the widely perceived need for the ICC, which the Bush Administration opposes.

There are a number of concerns however, about the fragile finances of the Special Court and its need for greater legitimacy - both in the eyes of Sierra Leone's people and in obtaining international cooperation. Senior Court officials have acknowledged that they underestimated the difficulty of achieving recognition and international cooperation. ICG urges the UN Security Council to enhance the court's power and prestige by granting it a mandate under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which would require all member states to comply with its orders, including its indictments and arrest orders.

ICG West Africa Project Director Comfort Ero points out: "Both the ICTY and ICTR have Chapter VII mandates and the Special Court needs the same authority. The issue is complicated at the moment by the diplomatic manoeuvring over ways to remove Charles Taylor from Liberia, but ICG believes such a mandate is necessary. It won't ensure state compliance, but without it, the Court will continue to face unnecessary obstacles".

Among Sierra Leoneans, the perceived 'Americanisation' of the Court, the likelihood that it will try no more than 15-30 people, and perceptions that it is distant from local media also affect its legitimacy. Statements by the Chief Prosecutor about the origins of the war as a 'black and white fight' over diamonds and subtle links he has alleged between diamonds and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network are seen as an effort to increase U.S. interest.

"Against this background", said Comfort Ero, "it is important that the Court doesn't lose focus. It needs to be careful not to appear to be subject to outside influence if it wants to fulfil its mandate with impartiality and provide a "new model" for international justice".

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